Why Do We Need karlssonwilker?

20.3.2012
Words by Haukur S. Magnússon
New York City design firm karlssonwilker is the brainchild of Messrs Jan Wilker and Hjalti Karlsson, one of whom happens to be born and raised in Reykjavík (no points for guessing which one). They have made quite a name for themselves, working for some rather big clients. Puma, The New York Times, Mini, Vitra, MTV, Warner Brothers and Universal music are among the parties they have sold their time and talent to since opening for business in 2000.

You can now add Reykjavík’s annual DesignMarch to that list, as the pair was drafted to the prestigious position of designing the visual identity for the 2012 edition.

We paid their Manhattan office a visit last month in an attempt to find out who these people are, what they are doing and why we need them.

The first years of Karlssonwilker’s operation are well known to graphic design enthusiasts, documented in a popular 2003 book entitled ‘Tellmewhy—The First 24 Months Of A New York Design Company.’ It tells the warts ‘n’ all story of their first two years in operation, detailing all the small victories along with major setbacks, disappointments, vanishing clients and failed projects.  Lauded for its honesty in depicting the sometimes-grim reality of starting a new business—rather than being a sugar-coated success story devised to earn them respect and clients—it is an essential read for anyone considering starting their own business in the field of graphic design.

“That book quickly took on a life of its own, and I am sure it contributed to our reputation quite a bit,” Hjalti tells me over lunch. “In fact, it’s still doing it. While I pay little attention to what people are saying about us, aside from acknowledging that being talked about can be good for business, our perceived image seems shaped by those early years as depicted in ‘Tellmewhy.’ I recently went to Calgary, Canada, to judge a competition and give a lecture, and while in conversation with this graphic design graduate I learnt that it was mandatory reading in his class, that this was actually the case in many design courses in Canada. It was kind of startling [laughs], I actually thought he was joking around until this was confirmed by others present.”

Hjalti and I are sitting at Karlssonwilker’s favourite restaurant, Village Yogurt on Sixth Avenue, where the two enjoy lunch every day. “During our first years in business we sustained mostly on Dunkin Donuts [there is a franchise below their office], but that quickly grew tired, not to mention unhealthy. So we embraced this place and come here almost every day,” he explains while picking at his order of steamed chicken and brown rice. Jan is back at the office, working on a deadline along with their two employees. “We run a small office. It’s the best way for us to operate, we’ve experimented with keeping a larger staff, but it doesn’t suit our purposes. We’ll usually host an intern in addition to the two employees, but that’s as populated as we want to get. Five people is plenty for what we do.”

LUCKY STRIKE

Sporting long blonde locks and a Jesus beard, Hjalti is healthy looking, humble and in a chipper mood. He tells me how he came to be a graphic designer, and how he came to live and work in New York. The tale is rife with coincidence. “After barely graduating from MR college at age twenty I found myself really lost, with no idea what I wanted to do. I started working for a wholesaler’s, distributing candy to stores and kiosks while attending courses in preparatory studies at what’s now known as The Icelandic Academy of The Arts. I had signed up inspired by my mother, who was always painting pictures, and in turn found myself drawn to the field of graphic design. After completing a year, my application to the school’s graphic design department was rejected, so I contacted Parsons School of Design in New York on the advice of [prominent Reykjavík designer] Atli Hilmarsson, who had attended.”

Much to his surprise, Hjalti’s application was accepted. In fact this was problematic for young Hjalti, as he couldn’t really afford tuition and the move to New York, despite his parents’ willingness to support the endeavour.

This is when good fortune struck: “A co-worker and I were taking orders in some hole in the wall sjoppa in Breiðholt, noting down how much Prince Polo they needed, stuff like that. My co-worker was behind the register, and he picked up a stack of these scratch lottery cards and suggested we play. They had just been introduced to the market and were quite novel at the time, it being 1989 and all. I had no time for such nonsense and told him to hurry up, but he threw me one, urging me to scratch. I brought the card up to my nose and smelled it before uttering, ‘this one is no good’, and asking for another. That one didn’t smell right either, so I got yet another one. Before I scratched it, I told my partner: ‘if I win, I’ll give you a third of the prize’. After scratching and perusing the numbers I handed it to him wordlessly, my mouth agape...

We had won a lot of money; what would amount to around $15.000 today. We drove to the lottery’s offices and they gave us a cheque for the amount. We split it according to our plan, even though my co-worker tried to refuse his share. And thus I could afford to attend Parsons, Funny how that worked out...”

Despite having lived in New York ever since, Hjalti still feels like a visitor. “In many ways it still feels like I just arrived. One of the reasons I wanted to go to Parsons was that I had this desire to be in New York. It wasn’t like I was sick of Iceland or anything, in fact I loved it and I fully planned on moving back home after finishing my three years in design school. I’m still here, though, twenty-three years later. I have a hard time fathoming that I’ve spent half my life here, and I certainly don’t feel like an American. Which is maybe funny considering I’ve never lived in Iceland as an adult. I was still living with my parents when I left for New York.”

THE KING OF THE DESIGN WORLD

After graduating from Parsons, Hjalti landed a full time job with fabled design guru Stefan Sagmeister where he—Sagmeister’s only employee—found himself working on a lot of high profile stuff, including album covers for artists like The Rolling Stones and Lou Reed. “And that’s where I met Jan,” he says.

In that very instance, Jan himself enters the Village Yogurt and takes a seat next to his partner of twelve years.

Jan orders food and we discuss his life before New York, Hjalti and karlssonwilker. After enjoying considerable success with a surfing apparel company that he’d founded in his native Germany, Sharksucker, he decided to study architecture. “I had envisioned architecture to be sort of The King Of The Design World. In the first half of the 20th century there were all these design universalists, like Buckminster Fuller, that were essentially architects but worked in every field: product design, graphic design, filmmaking and even art. For me they encompassed this bigger idea of what design could be, and this is what I aspired to.”

“I quickly learnt that architecture wasn’t being taught like that anymore, and I frankly didn’t have the patience to wait until I was forty years old to see my first garage constructed. So after a year of architecture I switched to graphic design, which seemed like a more immediate way of getting my point across.”

I ask what it was that he needed to get across so quickly. “A lot of it had to do with vanity, I suppose,” he says. “With Sharksucker, I had found it exhilarating to see my own creations on the street. To create something beautiful or interesting that other people would look at and be affected by.”

Jan’s studies would eventually lead him to an internship at Sagmeister’s New York studio. He and Hjalti grew friendly, and when they learnt that their mentor was planning a yearlong sabbatical they came up with the idea of doing something on their own. “We had this very naïve and sort of childlike idea that since the big boss was closing we should just start our own thing, seeing that the break would leave Hjalti out of work and I was a student with nothing planned.”

“We didn’t really know one another that well; frankly we had no idea what we were getting into. It’s somehow worked out for twelve years, though, and we’re starting to know one another pretty well. Hjalti often says that I am his best friend, even.”

HAND TO MOUTH

Upon learning the pair’s plans, Sagmeister gracefully donated them one of his office computers and sent a client their way. Design firm karlssonwilker started slowly taking form, the details of which are gloriously recounted in the aforementioned ‘Tellmewhy.’ Recommended reading for anyone who takes the slightest interest in design, the book is out of print by now but widely available at libraries and on-line.

At times it reads like a drama, the pair struggling with every aspect of getting established and finding countless obstacles in their way. One gets the sense that they started the firm with a sort of haphazardly optimistic ‘build it and they will come’ attitude, doing very little to attract business or reach clients. They struggle with work permits, housing, finances, losing clients, fumbled attempts at gaining new ones. But it is equally apparent that through it all they strive to be honest and hardworking, and that they take immense joy from every last bit of it. And this is likely what has seen them prevail and conquer to this day.

“Twelve years after taking those first steps towards independence, we find not a lot has changed,” Hjalti says. “We still work out of the same office. And we are still really bad at seeking out projects. I am naturally shy and so is Jan, so we don’t really cold-call clients or actively seek them out. We tried it and we’re just no good at it. We just want to sit here and have people call us, although to be fair I should note that Nicole [Jacek, karlssonwilker’s Creative Director and one of two employees] does work hard at pulling in business, and is quite adept at the cold calls.”

They still work mostly hand to mouth, as Hjalti remarks. “A project will come our way and we will work on it for two months or so, then hopefully we’ll have another one. This method of running a business can of course be stressful; we have few retainers on steady projects. This means we have to depend on whatever work comes in—if none does, we don’t get paid. And now we have families to take care of, apartments to pay for...”

“We never wanted to run this business as a hobby,” Hjalti continues, “no matter how much we enjoy what we do. From day one, we wanted it to be a business, and businesses make money. We would be a failure if we made no money. So this endeavour has to work; it has to turn a profit. And be fun. We run this firm on an annual basis; we have a meeting every December where we decide whether to carry on or not. And I believe that if we found it to be no longer fun or profitable we would call it quits.”

“So far we’ve always decided to do one more year.” 

EVERYTHING IS ALWAYS ALLOWED

We stand up to leave, dropping our paper plates in Village Yogurt’s recycling bin. On our way out Hjalti grins as he points out the restaurant’s wall of fame, which is covered with signed photos of soap actors, c-list stars, Susan Sarandon and... karlssonwilker themselves. The photo is humorous and tongue in cheek, like the two usually like to present themselves. This can be verified by looking at any number of the magazine covers they adorn or the mailers they will occasionally send out.

Indeed, their humour, irreverence and carefree attitude is a large part of what defines karlssonwilker as a design firm. I am reminded of a conversation I had with designer Siggi Eggertsson—who incidentally created the visual identity for last year’s DesignMarch—in preparation for the story, where we discussed his 2005 internship with Jan and Hjalti. Siggi remembers it fondly. “After reading ‘Tellmewhy’ I grew enamoured with their work and mode of thinking. So I contacted Hjalti to see if I could intern for them, and he invited me over.”

Taking a break from his studies, Siggi spent the summer at the karlssonwilker office, working on album covers and posters while experiencing New York for the first time. “It was a lot to take in for a short amount of time. I feel like I learnt a lot from being around them. It wasn’t necessarily anything technical, the real lesson came from being exposed to how they think; how relaxed they are and their approach to work, which is basically: everything is allowed, no matter the project. That is a good thing to keep in mind.”

As we make our way back to their office, I mention Siggi’s coments and ask if they have been keeping track of their former intern’s work. “I follow him very closely,” Hjalti responds. “I’ve always been a fan of his stuff and it’s great to see how well he’s doing. When he was with us he was thinking deeply about his future, wondering what direction to take. From the outset I felt it was obvious that he needed to work on his own, instead of at some firm. He needs room to express himself and to flesh out his ideas. We can’t take any credit for what he does in terms of design, but perhaps our mode of thinking influenced him, as you said.”

NO STYLE, NO PROBLEM

The karlssonwilker office is bustling with life. A well stocked bar sits in one corner, while a slew of Macs line the walls. Pleasantly energetic alt.rock blares at a low volume through a Pandora station. It is a comfortable, personal environment that gives off an air of having been the site of many a creative venture and countless all-nighters. Jan sits back down to work with the crew and Hjalti and I retire to the meeting room to continue our discussion.

karlssonwilker are notorious for not being associated with a particular design style, and of priding themselves in that fact. I ask Hjalti about this.

“We like to say we don’t have any set style, yes. I still think we inevitably have some sort of something going... we don’t like to use a lot of colours, for instance, a lot of what we do is black and white. And we usually use Sans Serif fonts. I imagine that there are all sorts of little style indicators in our work, and if people looked closely enough I am sure they could assemble some sort of steady aesthetic that we’ve employed through the years. But we still say we don’t have a style.”

A large flatscreen television hangs on one wall of the meeting room, and Hjalti hooks up his laptop to show me some of their recent work. We scroll through some impressive work commissioned by Nintendo for its 3DS handheld. We watch videos from a campaign they made last year for the launch of Mini’s new Coupe—which involved them driving over 3000 kilometres through Europe in the space of eleven days, interviewing interesting characters along the way and documenting everything for a slew of online videos, a website and a 24 page pull out in Matter Magazine. Another part of the Mini campaign involved them digitally melding the Coupe’s 3D CAD files with various fashion designs and models.

We watch some more, and it never gets boring.

WE HAVE NO IDEA WHAT 
WE’RE DOING

The discussion turns to graphic design in general. I ask what it means, what it is. Why people keep hiring them. Do they encourage sales? What are they bringing to the table? It’s not a particular style, we’ve already crossed that out, so what is it they contribute?

“We can design something just right, but we can never guarantee sales or success. See, most of what sells a product is itself. If your CD is brilliantly designed, with great artwork, but the music sucks, it will not sell. The opposite is rather true, great music can sell in great numbers despite being packaged horribly.”

He continues. “We don’t consider ourselves marketers. We are a design firm and we want our designs to work and for people to like them, and perhaps purchase them if they are for sale. But I don’t remember ever thinking: Hey, this looks so nice, it’s a guaranteed success!”

Could it then be as simple as their time-tested taste and imagination keeping people coming back? “I imagine that,” Hjalti says, laughing. “I’m not the right person to answer that, though, you should ask whoever’s hiring us. Just the same, our imagination is a large part of what we have to offer.”

“Many companies today, like Interbrand and others that specialise in branding, are selling a scientific approach. They profess to know how the market works and what has appeal. They base what they do on years of research. We never do this. We try not to think about how others do things, or if something is right or wrong in a given context. We never sell ourselves as specialists, claiming we are the best at anything. I’d be the first to tell a client that we’ve never done whatever it is he wants us to do before, but we’d still love to work with him on it. Most of our design decisions are based on what we like and are happy with at the end of the day. We pay little attention to what others think, although we do try to avoid clients rejecting our designs.”

“This has become somewhat clear over the years. Very often we’ll be approached by outside parties that have observed our work and know what we do, and they’ll bring us projects that they don’t really know what to do with, the idea being that we come up with something along with them. These are often companies doing special one-offs that they’ll never repeat. Like the New York Times Magazine project; they had never given a designer 12 pages and allowed them to create them from scratch, outside of their stylesheet. It was new for them; they were taking a risk and wanted to experiment.

“Working these one-offs isn’t something we sought out. It just evolved that way. Projects keep coming in that are different from anything we’ve worked on, and when they’re done a different one will come in. To name another example: early in our career, Puma called us and asked us to design a line of shoes called El Rey. We were really excited, we made some great looking shoes and then waited around, assuming projects like that would keep coming in. And then that of course never happened. It was a one-off. Nike or Adidas never called with similar projects. It comes and it goes; it’s nothing we control.”

“I love it and I enjoy it, everything that happens at the firm. There is a great variety. If I were doing the same stuff day after day I would grow bored. Instead, there is a constant stream of new and different things to work on. Perhaps the business uncertainty, never knowing what projects may come, is the price to pay for such freedom.”

A LITTLE CREEPY

The day grows longer and we keep talking. We discuss compromise, and how the market’s needs will often take precedence over aesthetic needs. He tells the story of working on a book for Al Gore, and how a bookstore wound up having the final say in how the cover design would look. “That was a lesson. It was for a children’s book about climate change. We had met with Al Gore and the publisher and were pursuing a certain direction, when we were conveyed the message, from the book’s to-be vendor, that a big seller in this category had looked a certain way, and that we should go a similar route. If we didn’t they would simply refuse to stock it, or place it at the back of the store.

“It’s kind of crazy to ponder; Al Gore and a giant publishing house have no say over the appearance of their own project. Everyone is running laps around the store, which in turn is following what their research shows will appeal to the masses. It’s as if Whole Foods declined to sell a product unless it came in a yellow container... it’s a little creepy, and I hope the practice doesn’t become more prevalent.”

WILL WORK FOR SKYR

Their work for DesignMarch comes up. Hjalti is excited to travel to Iceland and give a lecture on their work during the festival itself. “I imagine I’ll be showing some of our work and talking about it. Being commissioned to design the festival’s visual identity is also a great honour. We’re working it with Atli Hilmarsson’s Studio; they always handle the festival along with guest artists. For the look, we’re playing around with the Icelandic sheep. And I should add that the credit should go mostly to Atli and Hörður Lárusson, who are doing the brunt of the work.”

“Speaking of working in Iceland, I must say that it has been a long-standing dream of mine to do something for the Icelandic market. My top dream projects are mostly fantasies like making the title sequence for a Bond movie, but one thing I keep coming back to is working on a branding project in Iceland. If someone were making a new chocolate bar or skyr brand, a milk carton and needed a designer... I would love to get involved.”

TAKE YOUR TIME

The day is nearing its end and our conversation is slowly petering out. We talk about music, coffee, politics, the eighties. As I put away my things I ask whether he has anything to advise young designers or design students that are taking the first steps in the industry. What he would tell them.  

“The question they, or even anyone out there, should be asking themselves is: how can I derive pleasure from what I am doing? How can I be happy with my work. I don’t know how it works in Iceland, but over here design students will spend three years cramming their heads with knowledge, always under great pressure to figure out what they’ll be doing for the rest of their lives as soon as they graduate. They’re expected to immediately decide where they want to work, how they’re going to make money.

My advice is: take it easy. Take your time and figure out what you want to do and how you want to do it. You don’t need to commit yourself to a career or job at age 22.

Looking back, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left Parsons. And that was fine. There’s nothing wrong with being lost for a little while, slowly you will work out who you are, what interests you and how you can make a living from it.”  

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